November 06, 2020
A new documentary uncovers lost tapes to tell the intimate real story of the jazz Singer – one with terrible resonance today as the US continues to fight institutional racism
Singer, activist, sex machine, addict: the troubled brilliance of Billie Holiday
There’s an electrifying moment in Billie, a new documentary about Billie Holiday, when Jonathan “Jo” Jones, a tempestuous, influential African American drummer who played with Holiday from the 1930s to 50s, challenges his white interviewer. “You don’t know what we was going through then,” he says, referring to travelling through the deep south on Count Basie’s tour bus. “What were you going through?” asks the interviewer, Linda Lipnack Kuehl. “We was going through hell!” he shouts. “Miss Billie Holiday didn’t have the privilege of using a toilet in a filling station. The boys at least could go out in the woods. You don’t know anything about it because you’ve never had to subjugate yourself to it. Never!”
James Erskine’s film is constructed entirely from such interviews by Kuehl, a high-school teacher and Holiday fan with a sideline in arts journalism. In 1971, she began plans for a biography: Holiday had died aged 44 in 1959 and, 11 years on, Kuehl wanted to speak to those who were there throughout her life. She interviewed and interviewed and was still finding people in 1978 – almost 200 of them in all. The project overwhelmed her and she never finished it, and in 1979 she was found dead on a Washington sidewalk. police deemed it suicide, Kuehl having supposedly jumped from her hotel room, although there was no proof of this.
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